Monday, February 28, 2011

Tournament of Books 2011: An Unofficial Contest

Just a quick note today to point you to an unofficial Tournament of Books contest over at Hungry Like the Woolf.

You have until March 7 to submit your brackets, and there are prizes to be won.

I'm planning on having my full-field odds ready by Friday, but it's never too early to start looking at your brackets.

The Ape

Monday, February 21, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books: The Brackets

In the pursuit of my eager and vaguely pitiful quest to become the Joe Lunardi of The Tournament of Books, here are some observations on the final brackets for 2011. (Indeed, I am spending so much time thinking about The Rooster that I am sure to be awarded an honorary degree in ornithology).

I still have a handful of the finalists to finish before my full handicapping sheet is ready, but let's have a look at the notable matchups and judge-placements. In no particular order:

1. Most Intriguing First Round Match-Up: A Visit From the Goon Squad v. Skippy Dies
Terrible luck I think for Skippy Dies. (and yes, I am referring to these books as if they were sentient beings. Reason? Skippy Dies has sat on my lap. Paul Murray has not. QED). I thought Skippy Dies had a chance to advance a couple of rounds, but Goon Squad is a terrible match-up, since it is both more formally innovative and just as beloved by readers. I thought it was better than The Finkler Question, but it was seeded as a 3 to Finkler's 1. Note: the winner of this match-up should make it to the semifinals, since I don't think Savages or The Finkler Question will put up much resistance.

2. Award Winners Get the 1 Seeds
There are a lot of tough first round matches for my favorites, mostly because the major award winners were placed in the protected positions; this pushed some books that had considerably more critical and commercial success into the middle of the bracket to duke it out amongst themselves. The upside is that if you are So Much for That and can get out of your first round, then the second round against a one seed is not as tough as it might be. 

3. Best Potential Quarterfinal Match-Up: Freedom v. Room
Veeeeeeeeeeery interesting. Reader darling up against the dauphin of American literature. With the right judge, Room could win this, but Matt Dellinger is a journalist/non-fiction guy and I suspect that Franzen's social commentary will appeal to him more than Donogue's page-turning plot. Plus, there's the gender thing (watch for that as you fill out your brackets. When in doubt, pick the author with the same gender as the judge).

4. Whither Weiner?
Part of me really thought they were going to put Weiner in a position to judge Franzen. I both wanted this and feared it. For good or for ill, though, Weiner gets the Room v. Bad Marie first-rounder, which I expect to go to Room, though Bad Marie presents an interesting opponent. More interesting than the winner here will be Weiner's explanation. 

5. Most Favorable Seed: So Much for That
The right side of the bracket seems much lighter than the left. Super Sad True Love Story seems poised to get to the final, but So Much for That, as a three seed, only has to get through a book about horses, one about a white dude in a mid-life crisis, and a poetry collection to make the semis. 

6. Head-Scratching Judge Placement
There is an excellent chance that the lead-singer of a largely unknown alternative rock band will be the one deciding between Freedom and A Visit From the Goon Squad. This would be like James Salter deciding between The Black Eyed-Peas and Taylor Swift for the Grammy for Best Album. I like having a couple of judging wild cards but not this late in the game. 

7. Applause-Inducing Judge Placement
I really like Audience Judge Catherine George's match. I don't think either of these books is going to do much in the tournament, but these two books are screaming for a struggling MFA to judge them. My sense is that someone who has a draft of something trying to be The Great Canadian Novel in the drawer will be more sympathetic to Bloodroot than The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but the restraint and polish of Lemon Cake has its appeal. I am disconcertingly fascinated by this. 

8. Zombie Round Chaos
My uneducated guess is that A Visit from the Goon Squad and Room will be the Zombie books. I didn't think about the ramifications of the Zombie round in my earlier observations on the short-list, but the prospect of Goon Squad getting a 1-Up late in the game makes it, to my mind, the sharp's bet to take home the poultry. 

Alright, that's it for now. Back to getting through the whole list before March 6. Let me know if anything else about the brackets caught your eye.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

VIDA and Amazon: Charting Gender Bias in Reading and Reviewing

VIDA's study of gender bias in major review publications has put in numbers to what many of us have long felt: women writers do not get a proportional amount of attention from the mainstream press.

The study is well worth a look for all interested in contemporary literary culture, and I would also recommend reading Bookslut's on-going follow-up discussion about the matter. Frankly, I'm not surprised at VIDA's findings, but I am indeed surprised that anyone would be surprised about the findings. There's quite a bit more to be said about these matters, and I'm still mulling it over myself.

I will say, though, that VIDA's lede caught my attention: "Numbers don't lie. What counts is the bottom line." First, numbers may not "lie," but that's not the same thing as telling the truth. There are a host of reasons that these numbers might be misleading (though I don't think they are).

Second, and more interesting to me, is the idea of a literary "bottom line." VIDA suggests that review ratio is the ultimate measure of cultural attention, but is that the most telling barometer? I'm not sure that it is. Measuring the activity of the gatekeepers is interesting, but isn't what people are reading just as important, if not more so?

One could measure this in several ways (library lending, NY Times Bestseller Lists, Indie Bound Lists), but since Amazon will eventually do most of the bookselling in this country, I thought it would be a good place to start. So I looked at the 100 Bestselling Books, both overall and for Literature and Fiction, and here's what I found.

Of the Top 100 selling books, 47 were written by men, 39 by women (14 multiple-author books had an author of each gender or an institutional author).  

Of the Top 100 selling literature and fiction books, 54 were written by women and 46 by men. 

This suggests to me that what we see in the VIDA statistics is not overt gender bias on the part of readers and publishers, but by the literary-critical establishment, of which The New York Times, The Atlantic, et al are the most visible members. I don't have a totalizing explanation for why this might be, but I do have an idea for some part of it: the way we think about literature and literary history.

Literary criticism tends to be interested in influence and connection: we measure the greatness of today's work through what past great works it seems to be descended from. And the riverheads of literary history are overwhelmingly male. (Just as one example, The Modern Library's list of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th Century includes only six works by women. Time's list has 16. If we were to form lists for earlier centuries, this number would certainly decline). It stands to reason, then, that male writers are more likely to seem descended from the great (male) writers of the past.

What I am suggesting is that there is a bifurcation in literary "attention" between the male-centric world of capital-l Literature, and the habits and tastes of today's readers when it comes to gender (and probably a litany of other things). Which of these "bottom-lines" is more indicative and of what? I don't have an answer, but I suspect each individual's answer to that question say something about their position in the reading world.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques: Paracatenation

a sequence of sentence fragments, each describing an item in a list.

"A flashlight, for power cuts, and a stock of AAs. A novel he should have selected more carefully if he was taking only one. An English-Swahili phrasebook, malaria pills, deet. Prescription cortisone cream for persistent eczema on his ankle, a tube that would soon run out."
from So Much for That by Lionel Shriver.

Paracatenation has several uses, but in this case it seems to bring the third person narration closer to the character's point-of-view. The absence of formal narration also suggests a distance between the list and any thinking about or reflection on the list. Many instances of paracatenation are metonymic for a character's internal stock-taking; the most well-known recent example is probably Tim O'Brien's short-story "The Things They Carried."

Previous Entry:

The Generalized Categorical


All entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques are original to The Reading Ape, unless otherwise cited. (This means that they aren’t ‘real words,’ so don’t use them in your freshman comp essay)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Huck Finn : Still Causing Trouble

The recent dust-up over Alan Gribben's new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would probably seem pretty familiar to Mark Twain. Right from the book's publication in 1885, teachers, readers, writers, and other sentries of literature have continuously contested it; for each generation, Huck Finn provides a cultural Rorschach test. Early it was charges of obscenity; Twain's representation of Huck and his world was considered fit only for the "slum." A couple of decades later, Huck himself came under attack: the renegade boy was seen as an unfit example for other children. By the mid-1990s, the cultural wars came for Huck. This time, it was Twain's use of racialized and racist language under fire. In 1995, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the most challenged book in America's public libraries. At this zenith of political correctness, racist language, no matter the context or deployment, was anathema.

In this historical moment, our literary politics are different. Cultural uses of "nigger," from NWA to The Wire, are discomfitingly accepted as a necessary evil of artistic representation. The logic is "If the word exists in our parole, then we have to deal with it in our art." This middle ground acknowledges the reality of American racism without requiring that all representations of racism must be expunged from the artistic record.

The problem with this attitude, though, is that "acknowledging American racism" is a messy and tortured affair. Those with experience teaching or discussing literature with overtly racist language know what often happens; classes and book groups become discussions about the word rather than the work. This problem is at the heart of Professor Gribben's approach of substituting "nigger" with "slave" so that Huck Finn as novel can be investigated.

Reactions to his workaround have been widely derided, with a fervor that is as curious as it is well-meaning. One group of Gribben's critics wants to protect Twain; they see this emendation as a mortal blow to the integrity of Twain's artistic vision and the internal logic of the novel. Though laudable, this literary idealism forgets, as all idealism does, the practical considerations of literature as a living entity whose existence is under constant evaluation. The fact of the matter, as Gribben notes, is that Huck Finn's influence in the American literary canon is fading, precisely because of our contemporary anxiety about the word "nigger."

My own teaching experience suggests that he is right. Just a few days ago, during a class on Henri Bergson's The Comic in General, I saw the pedagogically destructive force of historical racism. At one point Bergson asks "Why do we laugh at a negro?" As one might imagine, my liberal, 21st Century students, finely attuned to the fault lines of American racial politics, latched onto this line and our class became an hour-long discussion of racist language. This, of course, is a conversation worth having. It is not, however, the only conversation worth having. Their collective anxiety about the word overwhelmed whatever else may have been of interest in the text. My class on comedic theory became a class on American racism, just as Gribben's classes on Huck Finn have become classes on American racism. This has happened in the wider stream of American literature: our cultural knowledge of Huck Finn is that it is a book about race, but few readers can readily say what else it is about.

The other main group of Gribben’s critics accuses him of cultural white-washing, of trying to cover up the ugly reality of white oppression. This line of thinking would have more credence if Gribben were somehow trying to hide what he's doing, and his introduction to the new edition makes it perfectly clear what has been changed from the original text. These charges, such as Ishmael Reed's, don't really seem aware of the complicated nature of the project.

In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani's articulates this position:
"To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist."

The brandishing of "censorship" ignores the realities of the problem. People, notably students, are not reading Huck Finn, and its centrality to the American canon is in jeopardy. Should we let this play out in the name of literary idealism? My sense is that Gribben would rather teach the unadulterated text, but the sensibilities of today's students and readers make that nearly impossible. His primary concern is the future-history of Huck Finn and would rather live with a living, imperfect text than a forgotten, pure one.

Given the choice, I think I would hazard the original text, but I also respect Gribben's position. Either way, it may well be that in the long arc of history,  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn becomes another victim of the very American racism that spawned it.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Literary Fact of the Day | January 2011

Here are the Literary Facts of the Day (#lfotd) from the past month. If you follow The Ape on Twitter, @readingape, you can get these delivered hot and fresh every day. 

Also, if you have a Tweetable factoid you'd like to share, let me know; I'll be happy to give you credit for it. 

Sales of Haruki Marakami's 1Q84 reached 1 million copies in the first month after its Japanese release 

Virginia Woolf once accidentally baked her wedding ring into a pudding (via @ ) 

Martin Amis read comic books exclusively until his aunt gave him some Jane Austen. 

The Bronte sisters' poor health has been attributed to drinking water contaminated by runoff from a nearby graveyard.

Edith Wharton's connections in the French gov't allowed her to report from the front lines during WWI.

During his used-book selling career, Larry McMurtry has bought all or part of 30 bookshops  (from  )

Jonathan Lethem saw STAR WARS 21 times during its original theatrical release.

Margaret Ann Shriver renamed herself "Lionel" at age 15, because she thought a male name suited her better.

Trollope wrote for three hours a day and required of himself "250 words every quarter of an hour" 

Leather ball beats leatherbound: the total revenue for the NFL was $8 billion in 2009. The total book market in 2009 was $5.1 billion.

Fleming's James Bond books were not big sellers in the US until JFK included FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE on a list of his favorite books.

Raymond Chandler could never bring himself to inter his wife's ashes; they sat in storage for 57 years before being buried in 2010.

In 1912, Sherwood Anderson had a nervous breakdown and disappeared for 4 days before being found wandering through a cornfield.

In 1994, six years before the writing a novel of the same name, Dan Brown released a CD called "Angels & Demons."

Angry that she was encroaching on his work, Fitzgerald convinced Zelda's doctors to keep her from writing about their relationship.

In 1907, H. D. Became engaged to Ezra Pound, but the engagement was called off because her father disapproved of him.

Joseph Heller would only begin working on a story when he had the first and last line in mind.

New Yorkers used to gather on the docks as the ship bringing the latest installment of Dickens was arriving.

William Faulkner wrote AS I LAY DYING in six weeks.

A six foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign sat next to Ayn Rand's casket at her funeral.

In the mid-1980s, Nadine Gordimer hid members of the then illegal African National Congress in her home.

Lorrie Moore gave up the piano while studying at Cornell because it was taking up too much of her writing time.


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